Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

D.C.'s disjointed push toward a modern taxicab industry

January 31, 2012 - 01:00 PM
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The head of our controversial Taxi Commission. (Photo: John Hendel)

In December, Mayor Vince Gray, Councilmembers Mary Cheh and Tommy Wells, and D.C. Taxicab Commission chairman Ron Linton all stood together in the Wilson Building to present a vision of modern taxis that we could achieve within a year — credit card readers, GPS, all of it. But take a look at yesterday's hearing and witness disjointed confusion. Three of the same officials were back in the Wilson Building and again talking about the taxicab industry's legislative overhaul ... but the front they presented was hardly the unified and polished full court press they offered a month ago and the details of our taxicab modernization are hardly smooth or settled.

Why? No one can decide how to move forward with the specifics of the overhaul and in no instance was that clearer than in Linton's two-hour grilling from Councilmembers Cheh, Wells, Bowser, and Council Chairman Kwame Brown. Hundreds of taxi drivers, hospitality leaders, disability advocates, media, and others packed the Wilson Building for a hearing on two major taxicab bills.

Transportation committee head Mary Cheh was surprised, for instance, that the D.C. Taxicab Commission issued an 89-page request for vendor proposals on Jan. 25, seeking vendors to provide the Taxicab Smart Meter System that would allow credit-card payment, receipts that feature trip details, and screens in the back showing riders the GPS-outlined path the taxicab is taking. This proposal assumes all D.C. taxicabs will modernize using this one government-mandated piece of technology and that D.C. would pay for the installation, operation, and servicing of the smart meter, with no charge to taxi drivers or companies and funded by a 50-cent surcharge applied to the District's taxi riders. Linton imagines this surcharge as an ongoing source of funds that would exist for as long as the government allowed, expected to yield $8 to $12 million a year.

Tommy Wells distinguished two paths — the city government could either establish "standards" about how taxicabs should modernize (implemented on the drivers' and fleets' terms) or follow a more "prescriptive" path, in which the government picks the vendor and runs the equipment with little room for market options.

"I'm not sure which way to go," Wells explained to Linton. "I'm more inclined to setting standards." To set standards would allow taxi drivers and companies more freedom "to change and modernize" as technology evolved and different ways of fulfilling those government standards emerged.

Yet then there's that 89-page RFP, with a deadline of March 12, that clearly opts for the prescriptive option.

Linton said that changing course and applying standards would incur for drivers one to two thousand dollars in investment costs as well as the credit card fees, "a heavy increase in costs to the drivers and the companies." He also worried that allowing drivers to upgrade on their own may result in "erratic and bad service." Cheh questioned the wisdom of already releasing an RFP. "In one sense, you're getting a bit ahead of the Council," Cheh told him. It's "a way of doing it and after the fact endorsing it. This anticipates that the answer is already decided." Linton replied that he was doing what he was empowered to do. He acknowledged that if the politicians changed course now, the standard personnel costs associated with issuing an RFP would be wasted. Given the dissension present yesterday — not at all apparent when the city presented this modernization overhaul in December — I can't imagine the RFP will be final.

Every councilmember appeared to have a drum they were happy to beat when it came time to question Linton.

Councilmember Muriel Bowser emphasized the industry's failure to serve all of the city. "The people of Ward 4 can't get a cab," Bowser, a former head of the transportation committee herself, told Linton. Not by hailing, she said, and not by appointment. "Did you hear me? And I know everyone in this room knows about it."

Council Chairman Kwame Brown pressed Linton to expand the number of wheel-chair accessible cabs and talked about how "un-American" our unequal dispersion of cabs happens to be.

Councilmember Wells picked apart the technical details of the proposal, from how the panic button worked to whether the legislation would increase Commission coordination with the District Department of Transportation to what he said "may be legitimate privacy concerns" surrounding the cabs' GPS, which would allow passengers to see the course of their trip on a screen and on their receipts but wouldn't store (at least with any names attached) the data in a computer or in the cloud. Wells didn't appear to trust Commission oversight: "Not to be combative," he told Linton partway through the questioning, "but I originally proposed abolishing the Commission altogether."

But what will these legion pet agendas mean? Likely more delays and many more hurdles before taxi modernization legislation moves forward. These officials need to be on the same page before anything can truly happen. If Linton has his way, we'd have a vendor by around May or so and 300 wheelchair-accessible taxicabs by the end of the year, contracted out to WMATA and the D.C. Public Schools. Yesterday's back-and-forth suggested that easy passage of this legislation will not happen, however, and that the bills' details are hardly final. The messy politicking, muddled execution of the proposals thus far, and unclear next steps leaves several issues still very much at stake.

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